Monday, April 18, 2016

'Don Giovanni' at St John's Church, 17th April 2016

There was a time, not too long ago, where I'd have recoiled at the idea of sitting through a three hour, non-English opera. Can I appreciate music that I can broadly recognise as 'good' but have zero technical understanding of? Is it even possible for me to both follow and get involved in a byzantine tale of 18th century scandal? 

Well, I enjoyed the hell out of Midsummer Opera's Don Giovanni, so I guess so. 

St John's Church, opposite Waterloo station, makes for an interesting backdrop. Built to celebrate Napoleon's defeat, the ornate gothic interior was blasted away by Nazi bombs. The postwar reconstruction is politely austere with a gentle focus on community engagement, charity and progressive politics (I imagine there's few other British churches with mosaics of Malcolm X and Che Guevara on the walls).

Still, having a gigantic portrait of Christ looming over the room is an interesting juxtaposition to Mozart and Da Ponte's tale of ruthless sexual exploitation, cold-blooded murder and gleeful amorality. This was my first exposure to the lascivious Don  and he more than lived up to the hype. 

Skimming through the plot synopsis on the way to the venue, I began to get an inkling of just how fun it would be: "Don Giovanni, a young, arrogant, and sexually promiscuous nobleman, abuses and outrages everyone else in the cast, until he encounters something he cannot kill, beat up, dodge, or outwit." 

The guy is a perversely likeable moral abyss. This attraction/revulsion complex is the core of the pitch-black comedy that made this production so damn fun. Gently and unobtrusively modernised, Andrew Mayor's interprets Don as a slithery middle-aged lothario. With his dark sunglasses, all-black outfit and rictus grin, he has a skull-like demeanour, making him a dangerously diabolical bundle of death n' sex.

Mayor takes pains to underline the sheer glee of the character, able to turn the charm on and off at will. For example, as he sings a sweet love song (Deh vieni alla finestra), Mayor slides hints of genuine sweetness into his vocal performance that seduce us in the audience as well as his target, an unsuspecting maid. Mozart feels as if he's showing off a bit at times like his, his music so beautiful that it bypasses every horrible thing we know about the Don and wallops us right in our glowing red emotional weak spots.

The rest of the cast are no slouches either. Highlights are his put-upon thrall Leporello (Oskar McCarthy): McCarthy has an enviable combination of musical skill and comedic expression, and as part of superlative company Pop-Up Opera has singlehandedly done an awful lot to make me appreciate the artform. Here he pitches himself as a patient henchman who's the embodiment of the shared addiction to finding out what depravity the Don will sink to next. Perhaps funniest is when the Don physically puppeteers him about the stage in an attempt to disguise himself, McCarthy gritting his teeth and rolling his eyes at his latest humiliation.

Similarly wonderful was Nicola Ihnatowicz'* Donna Elvira. An betrayed conquest of the Don, she's a ragged bundle of rage that first seeks revenge and gradually evolves towards pitying the loveless, hellbound Don. Ihnatowicz imbues damn near every motion with personality; be it way she imperiously jabs at her smartphone or morosely slugs back gin in the church pulpit. She's also got one hell of a set of lungs, most effectively deployed in Mi tradi quell'alma ingrata, in which she voices a hundred conflicting emotions at once.

My only real criticism of the show centres on the layout of the church. Sat near the back of the unassigned, flat seating I struggled to catch every nuance, occasionally wondering where the characters even were. I didn't exactly feel like I was missing out, but by the time I'd really started enjoying myself I was a touch jealous of those with a better view. Still, I guess them's the breaks when you perform in a church.

In all honesty, I know I don't quite have the musical chops to really evaluate the particular qualities of the musical performances. Even so, I know what I like and I liked this. Midsummer Opera's Don Giovanni wriggles with red-blooded energy, from the diabolical twinkle in Andrew Mayor's eyes to the personable hubbub of the choir to the broad, communicative body language that brings every scene to life. 


For upcoming shows from Midsummer Opera, see here.

*full disclosure - I know her sister.

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